Emma Coburn locked up her third Olympic team berth Thursday in the final of the women's steeplechase at U.S. Track and Field Trials in Eugene, Oregon, running 9:09.41 to break her own meet record from the last Games' cycle by more than eight seconds.
The 2017 world champion hung in the back to middle of the pack for the first mile before moving to the front with a breakaway group, then took the lead with 700 meters remaining and never looked back.
American record-holder Courtney Frerichs led or helped lead for most of race before being overtaken by Coburn in the second lap. She finished runner-up in 9:11.79 to make her second Olympic team.
Joining Coburn and Frerichs in Tokyo is third-place finisher Val Constien, who will make her Olympic debut. She ran a personal-best 9:18.34, the 12th-fastest time in the world this year.
Leah Falland, a podium contender, was behind Coburn and Frerichs with 800 meters to go when she clipped a barrier near the finish line. She got back up and finished but placed ninth in 9:27.06.
Coburn entered Thursday's final as the top seed having won Sunday's second first-round section in 9:21.32. Falland (9:23.36) and Grayson Murphy (9:25.37) were the next fastest overall.
Frerichs (9:27.75) placed third in the first section after taking a fall mid-race. "Thankful for those years of gymnastics and soccer teaching me how to fall," she tweeted after.
Both Coburn and Frerichs commented on the depth of this year's steeplechase field — the U.S. had seven of the top 29 steeplechasers in the world this year headed into trials; after Thursday it had nine.
"I think that U.S. women's steeple, right now, is the deepest it's been in years," Coburn said. "There are so many women that have run under 9:30 this year."
"Coming into this year, there were four of us with the standard, and then you just saw more and more women getting under 9:30," Frerichs said. "I was not surprised to see so many women in the race. I think that’s a wonderful thing. That’s what you want."
Coburn took bronze at the 2016 Rio Games and silver at the most recent world championships in 2019. She was eighth at the 2012 London Games.
After Rio she left her coaches Mark Wetmore and Heather Burroughs to train under fiancé and now husband Joe Bosshard, who's since assembled a pro group in Boulder known by moniker Team Boss.
"I think that we are a group that since we aren't backed by a shoe company but backed by ourselves we are able to cultivate a group of grown ups who are friends and fight together," she said. "I love the people on my team and [Bosshard] as our coach."
"Every athlete has a story about what happened the past year," she said. "[Bosshard] took advantage of it and I trained more as a half-marathoner and made the most of it. We came out better and I don't think I lost anything last year. Emotionally I had to shift my timeline as the Olympics were shifted and plans with family and money changed too. Personally there were scary moments but I'm excited."
Thursday's victory was the Colorado native's ninth U.S. title since 2011 and seventh straight. She scratched in 2013 due to injury.
"It’s a challenge that I like to rise up to," she said. "It’s a pressure I'm used to, and I’m grateful to be here and be a consistent athlete. It doesn't get any easier, it gets harder. Every year I have to reanalyze to prepare well for this meet."
The 30-year-old is the fastest American thus far in 2021 and also the No. 8 women's steeplechaser of all-time with a 9:02.35 personal-best from the 2019 World Championships. Only five women ahead of her and Frerichs, No.7, have broken the elusive nine-minute barrier, four within the last five years.
"Every year since 2017 I have felt fit enough to break nine minutes," Coburn said when asked about the chances for accomplishing the feat. "I feel like racing in July we won't know until we do it."
Frerichs, 28, placed 11th at the 2016 Rio Games and nearly broke nine minutes in July 2018 when setting the U.S. record in 9:00.85. She earned silver at the 2017 World Championships behind Coburn.
After Thursday's final, Frerichs said she doesn't plan to race again before Tokyo, opting to return to altitude in Park City, Utah. But she's thrilled to make another team.
"You can't ever take it for granted, and that’s even just to say – I’ve been able to make the last four [global championship] teams. Every time I don’t take it for granted," she said. "I was just as nervous for this one as I was the first. But I think I’m pretty good at showing up when it counts and I’m proud of that."
Constien, 25, ran at CU Boulder, sharing an alma mater with Coburn. She acknowledged after Thursday's race that Falland's fall opened up an opportunity.
"Unfortunately, [Falland] fell down at some point and I knew that was my shot," she said. "If I could capitalize off that mistake I could end up beating her and making that team. I had no idea if she was on my shoulder or if I was pulling away. I just gave it my all, and with 100 meters to go I was just running as hard as I could. I crossed the finish line and I was in a lot of pain.
"I’m really, really happy to be here, I think I earned it, I think I worked hard, but if [Falland] hadn’t fallen down I might not be sitting in this seat."
Constien works full-time on top of training for the Olympics, but has now proven as many others have before her that it can be done.
"I work 40 hours a week. I work for a running tech company called Stryde. I would not be here without this full-time job," she said. "I mean, beyond Tracksmith giving me clothing, I buy everything myself. I have funded everything myself, including this trip. Anyone working a full-time job can still have Olympic aspirations."
Despite being fierce competitors on the track, Coburn and Frerichs both shared kind words for each other after Thursday's final.
"[Frerichs] and I genuinely like each other, she wants to beat me and I want to beat her," Coburns said. "We are training the right way and keep getting better and better."
"It speaks everything to just who she is as a person, her consistency as an athlete and what she’s done for the event," Frerichs said. "I look at her and my teammate Evan Jager as people who have really changed perceptions around the event. You see it now. People are aspiring to be steeplechasers. They’re choosing to be steeplechasers over other events, and I credit Emma with that. It’s an honor to race against her."
Coburn announced in December 2019 that her mom, Annie, was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer shortly before Christmas. Annie is still undergoing chemotherapy treatment.
Annie was at Hayward Field on Thursday to witness her daughter win again, and Coburn spoke about her mom's battle after the race.
"[She's] still actively getting chemotherapy, completed 22 rounds," Coburn said. "She has Stage 4 colon cancer that spread to her liver and lungs. It’s inoperable but she has surpassed all her doctors expectations. She's an Energizer bunny, she’s really strong, emotionally. She has more chemo ahead of her but she is doing well and I'm happy that she was able to be here with me."
Women's steeplechase debuted at the Olympics in 2008. Coburn's medal in the event in 2016 was Team USA's first in Olympic history.
Following Thursday's final, Coburn and Frerichs were the fifth- and sixth-fastest steeplechasers this year on a list led by Kenyan Norah Jeruto (9:00.67).
Jeruto's compatriot, Beatrice Chepkoech, is the reigning world champion and current world record-holder.
Reigning Olympic champion Ruth Jebet of Bahrain has been suspended since 2018 after testing positive for EPO.